Grayson Brulte, co-chair of the City of Beverly Hills Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, has an interesting take on the future of personal transportation. “A child born today will never drive,” he says. “When you really start to understand that fact, things get interesting.” Brulte is among many people who believe Elon Musk when he says that the autonomous car will soon be as common as the self service elevator.
The rush to create an autonomous car is accelerating. With the advent of new and better technologies, the cost of self driving systems is dropping fast. Alexander Dimchenko, chief technical officer at BrightBox, notes that during the first Driverless Car Summit in Detroit in 2012, Google said its driverless test cars required about $150,000 in equipment. The Lidar system itself cost $70,000. Today, Dimchenko estimates the projected cost of a fully autonomous 2018 Honda CR-V sport utility vehicle would be nearer to $30,000.
Making a car that drives itself is a complex task. John Leonard, a professor at MIT who works on robot navigation, gave a talk in 2015 talk in which he said autonomous vehicles need to address fundamental perception and semantic questions — how to make a left turn against traffic, how to interpret the hand signals of a crossing guard or police officer, how to handle snow covered roads — before widespread deployment on public roads.
In order to accurately picture the road ahead and the environment outside a car, many autonomous cars rely on Lidar, otherwise known as laser radar. Lidar consists of a spinning cylinder that bounces a laser beam off objects in the vicinity and measures the time of flight. Lidar can judge distances and “see” in 360 degrees. They also use an array of cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors. All that data is then compared to digital reference maps using advanced algorithms and high speed computers, says Sravan Puttagunta, CEO of Civil Maps, a California based start up.
The result is what Pattagunta calls “contextual awareness” — a three dimensional awareness of the environment outside the car that allows the vehicles computer to make accurate tactical decisions, such as what to do at a four way stop or how to handle traffic flow at a traffic circle. By creating a machine readable augmented reality map, it helps the vehicle’s computer to contextualize the environment and selectively focus on road features such as traffic signs, lane markings, and traffic lights.
“One of the benefits of the augmented-reality perspective is the ability to localize a car and superimpose information on top of a signal, so if a car can’t see the signal, it can expect it,” Puttagunta says. “This is also important in harsh weather conditions, when it might be hard to see lane markings.”
The company’s AR maps also offer a visual display so the passenger can understand the vehicle’s intentions and what the vehicle perceives. Over time, this will help build passenger trust and confidence, Puttagunta says. Unlike Uber, which is using a fleet of autonomous cars to create detailed digital street maps of Pittsburgh, Civil Maps plans to crowd source the data and partner with auto manufacturers. Ford has already invested $6.6 million in the young company.
Civil Maps is facing stiff competition from others like Bright Box, Uber, Waymo, and several automkers including Nissan and Volvo. “The winner will be the company who achieves a working system with a minimum number of sensors and provides tech for volume OEMs,” says Bright Box’s Dimchenko. “The key factor is who will gather the biggest volume of data.”
Trusting An Autonomous Car
Driverless cars have the potential to greatly reduce injuries and death caused by distracted driving and reduce urban congestion, but first people have to be willing to trust them. People were skeptical of self service elevators at one time, too. It may take a generation of experience with self driving cars before that level of trust is established.
Which brings us back to where we started. Marshall McLuhan told us years ago, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Self driving cars are new tools. How they get us from here to there and back again will alter how we think about automobiles. Grayson Brulte could be right. A child born today may grow up with no desire to own a car or ever actually drive one. Is that progress?